The Cleveland Cavaliers are masters at erasing big deficits.
Months removed from their historic comeback from 3-1 down in the NBA Finals, the defending champions made the Golden State Warriors' 13-point lead with 8:17 remaining in the fourth quarter disappear before Kyrie Irving hit a game-winning jumper over Klay Thompson with 3.4 seconds left to catapult the Cavs to a 109-108 win at Quicken Loans Arena.
Kyrie's #NBAXmas game winner! #DefendTheLand https://t.co/QtJ2OTcOxX2016-12-25 22:17:19
Irving finished with 25 points, 10 assists and seven steals, and as always, LeBron James came to play with a signature performance.
In 40 minutes, James poured in a team-high 31 points (12-of-22 shooting) to go with 13 rebounds, four assists and a show-stopping dunk that punctuated Cleveland's momentum swing late in the fourth, as NBA TV documented on Twitter:
NBA TV @NBATV
LeBron with the two-handed JAM! 💪 https://t.co/FOFpZ4WZGa2016-12-25 22:10:23
ESPN's Tom Haberstroh took time to praise James in the midst of the Cavaliers' epic comeback triumph:
Tom Haberstroh @tomhaberstroh
LeBron is incredible. It's Dec after 6th straight Finals and still he's trying to end everybody like his life depends on it.2016-12-25 21:36:41
Kevin Durant led the Warriors with 36 points and Klay Thompson added 24, but a 15-point showing from Stephen Curry on 4-of-11 shooting prevented Golden State from reaching its full offensive potential in a tight battle that featured a slew of sensational highlight-reel plays.
Durant landed the first blow with 12 first-quarter points, and he uncorked a show-stopping slam over Kevin Love (20 points, six rebounds) shortly before the Cavs' power forward found James for an outlet jam of his own, as shown by NBA.com on Twitter:
2 dunks in 4 seconds! #NBAXmas https://t.co/Cuzu9ewIVv2016-12-25 20:00:07
The Warriors and Cavs continued to trade jabs as the first 24 minutes unfolded, and it was LeBron who got a big parting shot in before halftime when he bolted across the lane to deny Zaza Pachulia at the rim in emphatic fashion.
The NBA's official Twitter account captured the signature swat:
LeBron sends it back on ABC! #NBARapidReplay https://t.co/1nnHH2iVA22016-12-25 20:47:31
LeBron's block exemplified the defensive focus that dominated the first couple of stanzas on both sides, and ESPN's Brian Windhorst and The Vertical's Bobby Marks took note of the high caliber of play that enveloped the Christmas spectacular:
Brian Windhorst @WindhorstESPN
That half was as intense as regular season NBA gets2016-12-25 20:48:11
Bobby Marks @BobbyMarks42
That first half was certainly Finals worthy. High level of intensity from both teams.2016-12-25 20:48:43
ESPN.com's Chris Haynes echoed those sentiments during a third quarter that saw LeBron take charge and hit four threes before Durant came on strong toward the end of the frame and pushed Golden State's lead to seven:
Chris Haynes @ChrisBHaynes
This certainly feels like an extension of the last two NBA Finals. Both teams playing at an high level, leaving it all on the floor.2016-12-25 21:16:51
The issue for the Cavaliers, as it turns out, revolved around depth. Because even though they were able to sneak out a win, their bench presented significant issues before LeBron and Kyrie bailed them out with the game on the line.
While Golden State's rotation went 12 players deep, Cleveland opted for an eight-player substitution pattern with J.R. Smith sidelined due to a thumb injury.
With their top supplementary shooter out of the lineup, the Cavaliers barely had the balance necessary to push past the Warriors. Primary bench wings Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert combined to shoot 3-of-20 from the field, including 1-of-10 from three.
Tony Jones of the Salt Lake Tribune pointed to Cleveland's short bench as one of the team's potential shortcomings if there is a Finals rematch in June:
Tony Jones @Tjonessltrib
Bron gonna have to play 46 min a night in the finals. Golden state just has too many guys. Either KD, steph or Klay on floor at all times2016-12-25 21:45:16
But for now, the Cavaliers can revel in victory.
While another seven-game series with the Warriors in June could present some problems for the Cavs, they have proved to be money in the clutch against the defending Western Conference champions time and again in big spots.
Winners of five straight, Cleveland will return to the floor Monday when it travels to the Motor City for a meeting with the Detroit Pistons.
The Warriors, meanwhile, will try to right the ship after their seven-game winning streak was snapped on Christmas. Next up for the Dubs is a home tilt against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday that should serve as a strong litmus test when it comes to bouncing back from adversity.
"Kyrie, he lives for that moment...big shot-maker," Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue told reporters after the win, per 92.3 The Fan's Daryl Ruiter.
Speaking of Irving's game-winner, Curry was evidently not thrilled that he wasn't on the floor to try to shut down the Cavs' point guard, per the San Francisco Chronicle's Connor Letourneau:
Connor Letourneau @Con_Chron
Curry admitted he was frustrated he wasn't on the floor when Irving hit that late jumper.2016-12-25 22:47:06
As for his final look, Durant didn't hold back his thoughts on Jefferson's defense, according to the Bay Area News Group's Anthony Slater:
Anthony Slater @anthonyVslater
KD on the final play: "I fell. And I didn't fall on my own." https://t.co/34H0ISaw7r2016-12-25 22:38:35
Slater also relayed video of Draymond Green's interesting postgame session with reporters:
Anthony Slater @anthonyVslater
Draymond Green gives one long quote on the game, refuses to take ref questions, says he's going to rant about it on Uninterrupted https://t.co/ibwVmExBd52016-12-25 22:43:24
Finally, Thompson told reporters the Warriors gave the Cavaliers "a gift" after they coughed up a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, per Letourneau.